Tom Hanks is the greatest actor alive

If the actor doesn't win an Oscar for Captain Phillips, I'll eat your hat

19 October 2013

9:00 AM

19 October 2013

9:00 AM

Captain Phillips

12A, Nationwide

The main thing you should know about Captain Phillips is that it really puts you through the wringer. It’s based on the true 2009 story of the hijacking of a US container ship by Somali pirates, and the Navy Seal rescue mission that ensued — pirates, a word of advice: if you are going to kidnap Tom Hanks, America is simply not going to let you get away with it — and my heart was in my mouth throughout. It is nail-bitingly exciting, even if you know the outcome, and I think I can safely say it’s a better film than the one I thought I was going to see. Or, to put it another way, when I initially saw ‘Captain Phillips’ was about to open my first thought was: ‘Gosh. I wonder who is playing Princess Anne.’ That is still a film I’d go to, probably, but unless Anne ambushes a pirate leader in a ship’s engine room, and holds him with a knife to his throat, I don’t know how it could be more thrilling than this.

This is directed by Paul Greengrass, who made Bourne Supremacy and Bloody Sunday and United 93, and has taken the action-thriller and turned it into something both supremely intelligent and compassionate. (Well done, Paul! Seriously!) The star is Hanks, who plays Phillips, commander of a ship carrying cargo from Oman to Mombasa. Hanks gets it in the neck sometimes, for not doing very much, although what he is actually doing is this: not appearing to do much. World of difference. And it’s this very unforcedness that makes him one of the greatest actors alive, and in the final minutes of this film, he produces something so riveting and extraordinary and true, if he doesn’t receive an Oscar, I’ll eat your hat. (I don’t wear hats, remember, which is why it always has to be yours.)

Tom Hanks

So it finishes explosively, with that Hanks performance, but opens rather weakly, as it happens. It opens with Captain Phillips leaving his home in Vermont and being driven to the airport by his wife. They talk about their kids, she says things like ‘we live in a dangerous world’ and when he gets out the car it is ‘I love you’ and all that. I suppose this establishes Phillips as nothing special, your average family man going to work, rather than a swashbuckling hero, but it is rather clumsy, as is the way it then cuts to the Somali pirates gathering on the beach and being bullied by their tribal warlords. Quite crude, but once Phillips is on the ship and the pirates are on their way, in little skiffs, we are off, and the film never lets up.

Phillips first notes something coming at him on the ship’s radar. Beep beep, beep beep. ‘I don’t like the look of that,’ says Phillips. Just a beep but, such is Greengrass’s skill, your heart starts to pound. The pirates overcome the roaring seas and the ship’s hose system and board. Phillips, who will sit on his own abject terror until those last moments, instructs the crew to hide out in the engine room, but stays on the bridge, and behind his eyes you can see his brain ticking as it tries to work out: how do I take control of this?

Tom Hanks

Much of the interplay between characters comes in the form of tense confrontations, and interesting psychological games, between Phillips and the pirate leader, Muse, played by Barkhad Abdi. Abdi, a Somali who had fled Somalia for America and was driving a limo in Minneapolis when Greengrass cast him, is a remarkable presence. With his skeletal head and khat-stained teeth, he exudes menace but, at the same time, allows us to sense his underlying humanity. You feel both his violence and his desperation. The film doesn’t make geopolitical points as such, and doesn’t ever ask us to sympathise with the pirates but, still, we do understand why their lives are a tragedy, and what has brought them to this place.

This is, I suppose, just another ‘ordinary guy caught in extraordinary circumstances’ film, but it is handled with such brilliance, and performed with such brilliance, and filmed with such brilliance — from nervy hand-held shots to aerial views of the huge, rolling sea — it never seems like a cliché. And although the Navy Seal rescue is quite something, it’s Captain Phillips, suddenly registering all he has endured, that will remain in the mind. Tom Hanks has to be one of the greatest actors alive, plus we’d follow him anywhere, and do. If the pirates had captured Ashton Kutcher, say, would anyone have minded as much? No. Probably not.

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  • Dan Reed

    So. Tom Hanks is the greatest actor alive, says the headline, unequivocally. Yet the piece says that Tom Hanks “has to be one of the greatest actors alive”. A meaningless fudge. If you think he’s the greatest actor alive, Deborah, stand tall and have the courage to say so. Face down the naysayers.

    Personally, and this is only my opinion, I am reasonably certain Hanks is arguably one of the finest American screen actors of the last several years and possibly longer. But I am happy to be corrected if anyone takes offence.

  • Abhay

    ”Tom Hanks is the greatest actor alive”

    What a ludicrous heading for an article. He is accomplished, sure, but why is he the greatest? Why not Pacino or De Niro or even Brad Pitt or a few others I can think of?

    Hanks is very good at his craft and has had long innings which only comes to those who are good at what they do. But he is also an icon of the ”establishment Hollywood”, the ones who relentlessly promote progressive-liberal-moralism.

    • Gerard Kennelly

      DDL is the best (or maybe PSH)

      • Jimmy

        I assume you mean Daniel Day Lewis or Philip Seymour Hoffman? Why not just type that out then? Lazy.

        • Gerard Kennelly

          i predict hanks will win the oscar for captain phillips
          but he is not the greatest actor alive
          deniro is
          then day lewis
          then seymour hoffman
          hanks is more popular than those i listed

  • M. Wenzl

    Saying Hanks is the greatest living actor is a bit of a stretch, but it’s true that Captain Phillips is one of his best performances, if not the best. The genius of Hanks as an actor is that he makes it look so easy, his performances seeming so effortless. That said, I think he stands out in this role because I often found myself forgetting that he was Tom Hanks.

    • Gerard Kennelly

      the PTS scene was oscar worthy and very underplayed imo

  • Sarfaraz

    The writer is putting out his opinion as if he is the label-sticker to decide who is ‘greatest’ – I know Tom Hanks is good actor but to call him greatest is difficult ‘one of greatest..’ might summerize this confusion though. Plus, Somali Pirates are actually former fishermen whose fishery business has been crippled by presence of US NAVY near their waters, hence, hungry, starving, they have opted this last resort to survive.

  • Gerard Kennelly

    it is pretty obvious
    hanks will get nominated and maybe win
    he will be nominated against dicaprio, mcconaughey, quaid and redford
    i hope Dennis Quaid will win
    his work in ‘At Any Price’ is astonishing imo

  • sherin skaria

    Hi i am from south india.Well i have not seen all the movies of great actors.But i have seen more than half of Tom Hank’s movies .He really is a superb actor and he as captain phillips was one of his best performance since cast away. But whenever i get a chance to say about a performance or an actor which i thought was just out of this world it has got to be Daniel Day Lewis as Daniel Plainview in ‘There Will be Blood’.My God what a terrific performance perhaps the best from last 10 years.